Embracing the Digital Juggernaut

A computer-generated rotation of the atrium at 41 Cooper Square

The moment people start talking about “paradigm shifts” in any profession, you can be sure there’s some big, disturbing change on its way. One thing was clear at last night’s “Shifting Paradigms: Design in Transition” event at the Center for Architecture, in New York: the digital age is about to hit architecture on the head with a knuckle duster. The proliferation of Building Information Modeling (BIM) software has already changed the way architects communicate with builders and clients; now it may force design professionals to find new ways to validate their very existence.

The event began with a screening of (Re)centering the Square, a documentary on the design and construction of 41 Cooper Square, “a pure child of the digital age.” Indeed, Morphosis’s academic center is a showcase of how digital technology has transformed architecture: BIM was used from the earliest stages of the project, both to realize its complex geometry and for the analytics that might eventually fetch the building a LEED Platinum rating. In the film, Jean Oei, Morphosis’s project manager for 41 Cooper Square, shares an instructive anecdote. Software, she says, was used to design the rather complicated mesh that hangs in the building’s atrium—but then the fabricators built the mesh entirely by hand, finishing it off by actually hand-polishing the surfaces. The lesson: even in the digital age, architecture is about real, physical materials, manipulated by man.

Ironically, software might become a surrogate for getting our hands on the real thing, argued David Pysh of Gehry Technologies in the panel discussion that followed. Digital parametric tools offer real-time feedback, just as actual materials do—so architecture students will end up with a deeper understanding of how materials perform in a building, even if they never leave the computer lab. Neil Meredith, who teaches at Columbia University and consults with Front, added that BIM might eventually liberate emerging architects from having to follow the beaten track to success, offering them new career options as technical experts.

At the very least, digital design and project management tools will result in greater transparency in the architectural process. David Benjamin, the co-director of the Living Architecture Lab at Columbia University, pointed out that the BIM model explicitly quantifies the trade-offs in terms of materials and energy that architects have to make in every project. This means that design goals become clearer, to the clients and to the architects themselves. ArcSphere’s Paul Seletsky, who was formerly SOM’s digital design director, disagreed—he argued that this is, in fact, the biggest drawback in software today, that it lacks the ability to simultaneously look at design geometry and energy management. “In spite of successes like 41 Cooper Square, we are very far from a fully sustainable building that can be validated by metrics,” Seletsky cautioned.

Ultimately, however, the panel—composed of IT directors and digital-design aficionados— painted a rosy picture of the profession’s future. The only notes of insecurity were struck by the audience. As one attendee asked, “When my grandmother calls me and tells me that she used software to design her own kitchen, what will be the role of the architect?” Pysh didn’t see it diminishing. Architects will continue to receive the commissions that they already do, he said—where software will make a real difference is in the buildings that get built without architects. As people begin to design their own homes, we might actually see the emergence of a new digital vernacular, a completely different grammar for anonymous architecture. “We actually need more consumer-oriented design technology,” agreed Marty Doscher, the IT director at Morphosis. “It will be a great thing—to draw out the designer in every consumer.” Benjamin reminded everyone that architects also have a cultural role in building for human society, one that no software can deny. But by creating design-aware consumers, the democratization of design software might actually result in a new kind of client-architect conversation.

Going by the tenor of last night’s discussion, the digital era comes bearing incredible gifts. But some niggling issues will still have to be ironed out—the panel never really answered the question of what it will mean for the profession when architectural software is owned by just two or three vendors. There might be lessons to be learned in this from other fields. The visual arts were taken over by software a long time ago. Graphic designers today manage to be creative and innovative in spite of having software providers like Adobe pretty much in control—but many battles were fought before this happy status quo was reached. With its huge monetary investments, multiple stakeholders, and long-lasting products, architecture is likely to have an even harder time. Forward-thinking architects are undoubtedly wise to embrace the digital juggernaut, but I for one doubt that the transition will be as easy as this panel would have us imagine.

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